Tuesday 3 January 2012

Wings of dark desire

With Black Swan, Darren Aronofksy returned to the inspired lunacy of his earlier work. The Wrestler (2008), for all that was good about it, was ultimately a realistic, calmly directed, even subtle film. That was fine, but 'realistic', 'calm' and 'subtle' are not words you'd pick to describe Π (1998) or Requiem for a Dream (2000), and they sure as hell aren't what you'd call Black Swan (2010), which is absurdly heavy-handed, wildly melodramatic and overblown.

That's a compliment. In the often maddeningly pedestrian world of Oscar bait, its self-conscious grandeur makes Black Swan fascinating and worthwhile. It also marks a further step in the evolution of Darren Aronofsky, staying true to his concerns as an artist but finding new and inventive ways of tackling them, and as a fan that makes me very excited.

Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers, a ballerina in her late twenties who is finally given a chance to step into the limelight with the retirement of the company's ageing star Beth (Winona Ryder), and Nina is chosen to portray the Swan Queen in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake by playboy director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). The fearful, self-conscious Nina is a natural fit for the virginal Odette, but cannot relax enough for a convincing portrayal of the seductive, carnal Odile.

When she is befriended by the wild, free-spirited new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina begins to come out of her shell and rebel against her loving but controlling ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey). Soon, however, she comes to believe she is followed by a dark doppelganger and menaced by Lily, who she fears is trying to replace her. Her paranoia causes her to grow more afraid and tense just when she needs to finally overcome the repression that's holding her back as a dancer.

Before discussing the film itself, it's worth addressing a certain controversy that engulfed Black Swan's Oscar bid. To my mind, it's quite irrelevant who performed Natalie Portman's dance scenes in Black Swan. Film is artifice: we know, and accept, that actors do not and cannot do the things they seem to be doing in films. The willing suspension of disbelief is broken and the viewing experience damanged only when the artifice draws attention to itself by being unconvincing: poor CGI, for example, or bad acting. Black Swan passes that test with flying colours.

It shouldn't matter how much dancing the lead actress did. But Fox Searchlight brought the whirlwind on themselves by not combating the impression that Portman had become a professional ballerina in a year and a half. This not only fanned the irritating cult of authenticity - a symptom of commodification but powerless to create an alternative -, it was also grossly discourteous to Portman's dance double Sarah Lane and her colleagues. Motion pictures are collaborative efforts, and it should always be deplored when the people who make a film possible are sidelined at the expense of a few marketable stars. Hopefully the fiasco will teach studios to give all involved due credit in future productions. 

Rant over! Black Swan pretty much screams its most obvious interpretation: it's about Nina's attempt to overcome her own sexual repression, and the stresses and splits in her personality that this struggle causes. She can't win her freedom without coming apart at the seams. She's constantly infantilised by living with her mother, who calls her a 'sweet girl' (a phrase that comes to haunt Nina) and makes her live in her pink childhood bedroom, complete with cuddly toys. She's deeply uncomfortable when Thomas inquires about her sex life and asks her to masturbate to loosen up. She desires those things she will not allow herself to have and is locked in a cycle of guilt, self-hatred and perfectionism.
Aronofsky chose to convey that message not through conventional drama but through body horror, perhaps the most uncomfortable and terrifying subgenre. In body horror, we're attacked not from the outside (as in, say, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) but from the inside. We can flee Leatherface, but we can't escape or fight the evil that's spreading within ourselves. Black Swan thus has strong echoes of the Calvinist doctrine as total depravity - the notion that no part of us remains uncorrupted by debilitating sin. Nina is gradually destroyed by her inability to live up to the rigid standards she has internalised: she despairs of works-righteousness, but there is no saviour to take her burden. 
The willingness to portray her own body becoming her enemy makes Natalie Portman's extraordinary performance more courageous than, for example, Charlize Theron's unrecognisable turn in Monster. In Black Swan Portman shows the vulnerability of the same body we know from perfume ads - although having lost twenty pounds for the film the already petite actress looks disconcertingly frail. Mila Kunis, showing off her natural easy charm, is the perfect opposite to Portman, while Vincent Cassel - an actor who's always interesting, even when he's not good - turns in a rather terrific performance as a man driven by impulse and desire. 
Subtle it all ain't, and that goes doubly for Clint Mansell's score. Disqualified from Oscar consideration for liberally quoting Tchaikovsky, the music would be greatly lessened without the use of 'Swan's Theme', a grand, devastating piece of music that says 'tragic foreboding' like nothing else (witness, for example, its use in the Last Supper scene in Des hommes et des dieux); but as it is, the sweeping orchestration fits the melodrama like hand in glove. 
Aronofsky, I said, is developing as a director. He's still up to his favourite techniques: the over-the-shoulder camera following actors around makes a number of appearances and is used to great effect in dance sequences. Aronofsky is less fixated on his bag of tricks these days, but he's learnt new ones too. The horizontal expanse provided by the film's 2.35:1 aspect ratio gives him the space he needs for thrilling dance sequences: the climax has the best of the lot, but there's stiff competition.
Praise is due, too, to the bold decision to almost totally abandon narrative coherence for a psychological stream of consciousness in the last half-hour, creating a sustained nightmarish rush of horrifying images up to the climax - which, as in all Aronofsky films, is inexorable, the only logical conclusion to his characters' lives. Aronofsky films are about people who are obsessed by something - numerology, heroin, wrestling, ballet - whose ultimate fates are dictated by these fixations.

No comments:

Post a Comment